White, William John (‘Jack’) (1920–80), broadcaster, editor, journalist, and novelist, was born 30 March 1920 in Cork, second child of William Luke White, accountant, and Mary White (née Tyler). In his book Minority report (1975) he described himself as ‘a member of a minority within a minority; we were Congregationalists in Cork’. His experience as a member of that minority informed his novels, his drama ‘The last eleven’, and his analysis of the protestant community in the Republic of Ireland.
White was educated at Midleton College, Cork, and entered TCD with the Louis Claude Purser (qv) scholarship. He was a foundation scholar and elected Scholar of the House in 1940, graduating BA (Mod) (1942). He took his LLB in 1942, the year he won his first of two Vice-Chancellor's Prizes for English verse and English prose. While at Trinity, White served as president of the Philosophical Society and as editor and chair of the Trinity literary magazine. He produced a prize-winning performance of Henrik Ibsen's ‘A doll's house’ for the Trinity Players, which won the Father Mathew feis competition.
White joined the Irish Times, under the editorship of R. M. ‘Bertie’ Smyllie (qv), as a leader writer and literary editor in 1942. His ultimate goal was a career with the BBC, and to that end he viewed the newspaper post, which was initially unpaid, as a stepping stone. During his early days with the Irish Times he was surprised to learn how little knowledge was required of him when he was asked to write a leader after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. He was widely travelled; his 1945 series ‘Front line of Europe’ in the Irish Times examined postwar eastern Europe from Berlin to Belgrade and contributed to his reputation as a public affairs journalist. He served as London editor of the Irish Times (1946–52) during which time he reorganised the London office and started the ‘London Letter’ series.
In 1951 he was recalled to Dublin by Frank Lowe, then chairman of the newspaper, and rumours were rife that White was going to replace Smyllie as editor. He was viewed by many as an ideal candidate, and Tony Gray (qv) (1922–2004), who worked at the Irish Times, wrote of White that he was ‘a very good all-round journalist, sound on politics, a brilliant writer with a solid Cork protestant background and a highly successful career at TCD behind him. He drank only moderately and he had already proved that he possessed admirable administrative capabilities’ (Mr Smyllie, sir). White was eventually appointed to the newly created post of features editor, which gave him control over much of the content of the newspaper apart from sport, hard news, and leaders. This was viewed by Smyllie and his deputy Alec Newman (qv) as an attempt to undermine the status quo and White's editorial function was gradually eroded to control of the book page and one features page. During his time with the Irish Times he was also Irish correspondent to the Observer and Manchester Guardian, and his work also appeared in the Leader, the Bell, the Envoy, and the Dublin Magazine.
While working as a journalist he developed an interest and reputation as a broadcaster and chaired Radio Éireann's weekly ‘Round table on world affairs’ as well as other current affairs programmes. In 1961 he left the Irish Times when he was appointed head of public affairs programming for the newly established Telefís Éireann. In his biography Seán Lemass: the enigmatic patriot (1997), John Horgan describes the taoiseach Seán Lemass (qv) having a private meeting with two catholic archbishops to discuss the appointments of White, Proinsias Mac Aonghusa (1933–2003), and Shelah Richards (qv) to the new television broadcasting service. Lemass asked Pádraig Ó hAnracháin, head of the government information bureau, for his private opinion of the appointees. He responded: ‘[White] has no great firm beliefs about anything in particular and certainly gives me the impression of having no national outlook in the broadest sense of the term and has no loyalties. He . . . would think of Ireland as a place where those, like himself, who are “liberal” on outlook must suffer as best they may’ (317). White was later controller of programmes (1974–7), when he was promoted to head of broadcasting resources, the position he held until his death.
White wrote three novels exploring the Dublin middle classes: One for the road (1956), The hard man (1958), and The devil you know (1962). In One for the road, a psychological thriller set in Dublin, the second world war is a presence in neutral Ireland – underground, overhead, and in the conscience and consciousness of the characters. While it is not a major theme in the novel, religion makes a difference among friends and thwarted lovers. White's last and best-known novel, The devil you know, is a witty academic novel set in the fictional Dublin Institute for Historical Studies when Myles Keating returns from Oxford and disrupts the lives of his colleagues (it was allegedly based on Desmond Williams's (qv) return from Cambridge to UCD). Again, the differences in the worlds and outlooks of catholic and protestant characters are essential to the development of White's characters; however, the consequence of irresponsibility is the book's theme.
Religion is the subject of White's play ‘The last eleven’ (1968, 1978). With the death of Mrs Armstrong of Kimberly House, a rural Church of Ireland congregation (reduced to eleven members) considers the problems of the declining population of protestants in contemporary Ireland and their somewhat uneasy relationship with the local catholic parish. The play won the Irish Life Assurance drama prize and the International UNDA/WACC prize for religious programmes; it opened at the Abbey Theatre on 16 January 1968 and was later produced for television by RTÉ. White's second play, ‘Today the bullfinch’, was published in 1971. His other dramatic writing included the scripts for a number of son et lumière productions: Christ Church, Dublin, Exeter cathedral, Tewkesbury abbey, York minster, and Warwick castle (1972).
White revisited the experience of protestants in post-independent Ireland in Minority report: the protestant community in the Irish Republic (1975). His introduction, ‘A little outside of things’, describes Irish life as ‘built on the geological strata of religion’. The study examines the decline of the protestant population, which changed from ‘a privileged minority to a minority without privilege’ in an Ireland whose 1937 constitution guaranteed religious freedom but recognised the ‘special position of the Roman Catholic Church’ until that article was deleted in a 1972 referendum. White concluded his study, written in the early days of the ecumenical movement, with the assertion that catholics and protestants in Ireland shared a culture rooted in family, community, and countryside, where religion gave the respective communities the predominant patterns of their lives.
White died suddenly in Stuttgart, Germany, on 13 April 1980, where he was representing RTÉ at a meeting of the European Broadcasting Union. At the time of his death, he lived at 95 Booterstown Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.
He married fellow Trinity Player Edna Boyd McGuckin (d. 2009) in 1942. They had three children: Stephen, Melissa and Victoria.